Where was the manger and what was the inn?

by | Dec 12, 2012 | Background & History, Christmas

Typical village home in Palestine

Like most people, when you consider the traditional Christmas story, you picture Mary giving birth alone in a barn filled with straw and animals because all the hotels were full.  You can probably recite the details by heart. You would be wrong.

According to middle-eastern scholar Kenneth Bailey, much of our modern understanding is based on “cultural mythology.”

Rev. Bailey has spent 40 years living and teaching in the Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus.  He brings his impressive knowledge of middle-eastern culture and language to understanding the life and times of Jesus Christ.

In Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, Bailey makes a powerful case that the traditional understanding of the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-18) relies more heavily on tradition (in particular a “novel” published around A.D. 200) than on the biblical text and culture of the day.  He writes:

To summarize the problems in the traditional interpretation of Luke 2:1-7, Joseph was returning to his home village where he could easily find shelter.  Because he was a descendent of King David nearly all doors in the village were open to him.  Mary had relatives nearby and could have turned to them, but did not.  There was plenty of time to arrange suitable housing.  How could a Jewish town fail to help a young Jewish mother about to give birth?  In light of these cultural and historical realities, how are we to understand the text?  Two questions arise:  Where was the manager and what was the ‘inn’? (pg 28)

Bailey’s research reveals that, while the wealthy at the time had separate quarters for their animals, the typical village home had only two rooms: the family living quarters and the stable (see photo).  The stable was lower than living quarters, next to the door, and housed the family animals overnight for warmth and safety.

Those more well-off might also have a room exclusively for guests on the other end of the house or on the roof.  This “upper room” or “prophet’s chamber” is the “inn.” (The Greek word literally means “a place to stay”.)

When the family cow became hungry in the night, it could stand and eat from the mangers cut into the floor of the family living room.  Wooden mangers for sheep and smaller animals would be placed on the floor of the lower level.

To summarize, a part of what Luke tells us about the birth of Jesus is that the holy family traveled to Bethlehem, where they were received into a private home.  The child was born, wrapped and (literally) ‘put to bed’ in the living room in the manger that was either built into the floor or made of wood and moved into the family living space.  Why weren’t they invited into the family guest room, the reader might naturally ask?  The answer is that the guest room was already occupied by other guests.  The host family graciously accepted Mary and Joseph into the family living room of their house.

“The family room would, naturally be cleared of men for the birth of the child and the village midwife and other women would have assisted at the birth.  After the child was born and wrapped, Mary put her newborn to bed in a manger filled with fresh straw and covered him with a blanket (page 34-35).”

Bailey’s work shows the importance of stripping away our cultural presuppositions when we approach the Bible.

When we do, we learn that “the manger was in a warm and friendly home, not a cold and lonely stable. … Yes, we must rewrite our Christmas plays, but in rewriting them, the story is enriched, not cheapened.”

Series: Christmas

Photo from Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, page 33